Discovering the Relevance of Words
Since I wrote the first draft of this essay over two weeks ago in a hotel room in Munich, something terrible has happened in America (again). A white terrorist, driven by racist, white supremacist motives, has killed nine African-Americans in an historic black church in South Carolina. I learned of the attack the next day, sort of a “good morning, America sucks yet again” wake up call. There was something extremely disconcerting about receiving this news from afar. I live in a country with a horrific past. But Germany has confronted that past. They don’t romanticize concentration camps. Nobody gets married at Dachau. Furniture stores don’t sell KZ-Lager style furniture (“plantation style” furniture anyone?). No. Rather, when a person visits Dachau, they usually leave asking themselves soul-wrenching questions. Would one have had the courage to resist Nazi tyranny, to hide a Jewish family in the attic or the cellar? And many German cities have found their own ways to memorialize those individual cities’ victims of National Socialism. On the other hand, as far as I’ve been able to figure out, there exists no federally funded museum of slavery in the entire United States.
(The following essay is as much a reminder to myself as to anyone else.)
I’m obsessed with a magpie. Not the talking magpie from the old Windex commercial who careens head on into a window so clean it’s invisible, but the magpie from the opening paragraphs of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. The poem, probably written between 1200 and 1225, begins with a description of the character of man. Von Eschenbach, the medieval German poet, recognizes that each of us potentially carries within us the power to do good or evil. To illustrate his point, he reminds us that magpies have both white and black feathers. Now guess which color represents the good in man, which color the bad. If you suppose that white equals the good, black the bad, then you would be correct. And while most of us have evolved from thirteenth century notions (I hope) to a place where we no longer actively connect good with “white,” black with “bad,” many of us continue to work within a dichotomy that privileges light (the new white?) over dark (the new black?).
[Re: white/good, black/bad. There is evidence to suggest that some of us haven’t evolved, evidence that suggests horrific, real world consequences for some African-Americans convicted of murdering white victims. Click on this link to read about a study that suggests juries are more likely to apply the death penalty to black defendants with dark skin (as opposed to black defendants with lighter skin).]
Again, my aim here is not to single out any particular writer, but rather to suggest that we ask ourselves why we cling to our preconceived notions of what light might mean, what dark could signify, and to probe with curious and open minds the exact location from which our inclination to engage with this duality stems.
Indeed, darkness has long been associated with circumstances discomforting to humanity. One need look no further than the beginning of Dante Aligheri’s Inferno (part of his fourteenth century epic, The Divine Comedy), in which the narrator finds himself in a “dark” wood. (In this context, being lost in a dark wood is not a good thing.) The Inferno goes on to describe a journey through the nine circles of hell, also not good things. Roughly six centuries later, in 1902, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about a journey on the Congo River, would be published in book form. The novella paints a portrait of the local African people as uncivilized, and although it has received much praise, it has also been criticized by no one less than the great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, for racist depictions of the Africans featured in the book.
[But surely we can understand the light/dark connotations in different, non-racist context, one might argue. Dante’s dark wood, after all, is dark because the sun doesn’t reach through the thicket of overhanging trees. And sunlight is good, right?]
My husband and I chase the sun. Or rather, we chase the power the sun can provide. He works in the field of solar energy, and as he’s advanced in his career, we’ve followed his job from Oakland, California, to the Los Angeles area to the Pacific Northwest to Camirillo, California, back to the Pacific Northwest, and most recently from the Portland area to our new home in Bonn, Germany. Moving so often has produced a bit of a whirlwind, has sometimes left my head spinning on its shoulders, and it is precisely because of this spin that I understand and value the power of the sun. The sun is an unquenchable resource that produces enough photovoltaic power to juice up the world. Also, natural and sometimes artificial light, it seems, is necessary for the growth of all kinds of organisms, helps us see, and often improves our mood. I also know that darkness, or the absence of light, can be menacing. At various points in my adult life, I’ve suffered from horrifying, recurring nightmares, the kind of dreams you wake up from punching and kicking. To wake from such a dream is to reach for the light switch, to flood every last shadow out of the room in the glowing illumination that streams from the comfortable, comforting lamp. In such circumstances, the light becomes almost sympathetic. And so when I write, I have often found myself framing what is pleasant, graceful, necessary, in terms of the light. The light that flows from that sun I follow so faithfully, or from a lamp that suddenly extinguishes ‘looming’ darkness, or even in terms of an inner light that ‘sparks’ that all-important gift, self-knowledge. After all, without knowledge of ourselves, how can we know others or properly experience the world? But I want to challenge myself to write in a different way, to push von Eschenbach’s magpie, everything that has occurred along the ever-present trajectory of that magpie, firmly to the side. I want to ask myself: what can I find in the darkness?
Quite a lot, actually.
We spend nine months in the nutritive dark of the womb. Find relief in the shade on an otherwise sweltering day. Experience the lush undergrowth of a forest. But that’s not all. There is good, regular sleep in an unlit room, the kind of slumber in which our dreams play out, work out for us the various questions of our lives. These dreams temper ferocities, offer solutions, sometimes even show us what we actually think or feel. Thus in darkness we also discover ourselves. This discovery is that important first step in engaging humanely with our environment and with other humans making their way through their own worlds. We encounter these beings daily as we buy bread, read the bus, go to readings, fall in love. Because of this truth I would suggest (again, both as a reminder to myself as well as an invitation to others) that we stop investing our energy writing set positive or negative values onto the concepts of light, of dark. Rather, let us view them as complimentary, egalitarian forces, both subject to an entire range of human thought, human emotion. Only then can we turn away from old tropes, tired descriptions, writing that supports a worldview in which skin tone can dictate fate. (Again, see that link.) And although von Eschenbach was right about one thing—our characters contain within them the potential to do good or bad—we need not code that potential in terms of color. And we certainly need not code the positives and negatives of human experience in terms of a light/dark dichotomy in which light is always equal to good, dark always to bad. After all, dark objects absorb light and grow warm. Warmth is necessary to life. And the light, in its turn, can blind us.